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By Joe Bendel. The Deepsea challenger submersible is a marvel of engineering. It can withstand the pressure diving to the lower depths of the Mariana Trench, while still containing James Cameron’s ego. The Oscar winning filmmaker follows his passion to the remotest corner of the ocean floor in John Bruno, Ray Quint, and the late Andrew Wight’s Deepsea Challenge 3D, which opens this Friday nationwide.

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To avoid confusion, the film is title Deepsea Challenge 3D, the expedition is the “Deepsea Challenge” and the craft is named “Deepsea Challenger.” Clearly, all the inventiveness was saved for the engineering. To a large extent, all three were made possible by Titanic and Avatar. Cameron was no mere figurehead attached to the project. He cut checks and pilots the Deepsea Challenger during its historic dive, which is not so crazy given his short stature and long enthusiasm. However, he comes across as quite the demanding taskmaster during the extensive development process. Tragically, the entire project is temporarily called into question when Wight and underwater cameraman Mike duGray perish in a helicopter accident.

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You cannot say Cameron never put his money or the rest of his body where his mouth is. In fact, one gets the sense his wife, former model and actress Suzy Amis would just as soon see him collect vintage cars, like Leno. Still, Cameron’s evangelical zeal for deep sea exploration is admirable. In fact, the best sequences in Challenge 3D revolve around the research vessel Trieste’s previous voyage to the depths of the Mariana in 1953. Subsequently overshadowed by the Moon landing and Jacques Cousteau, the Trieste fired young Cameron’s imagination, directly inspiring The Abyss.

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From "Deepsea Challenge 3D."

Strictly speaking, the 3D adds very little to the viewing experience, even when the mission is underway. On the other hand, it is so unlikely most viewers will ever find themselves exploring the Mariana Trench, it makes sense to replicate the experience as fully as possible, much like the Chauvet Cave in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Of course, it also necessarily comes with 3D pricing, which many audience members may not believe is warranted for a film produced very much in the style of a National Geographic television special.

Regardless, Challenge 3D should be considerably informative for most layperson viewers and they way it captures the team’s spirit of innovation and derring-do is certainly appealing. It just lacks the “wow” moments Cameron fans might expect. Recommended for aquatic-fascinated audiences of all ages, Deepsea Challenge 3D opens this Friday (8/8) nationwide.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:02pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Usually, it is the police who expect the crazies to come out during a full moon. Now it is the criminals’ turn to worry. Lou Garou was never much of a cop, but he has been changing lately. He still drinks like a fish, but he lays down a lot of law during the night shift. However, there might be more nefarious reasons for his lycanthropic state in Lowell Dean’s Wolfcop, which screened during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Garou is a drunk, who apparently only holds his job on a small Saskatchewan town’s police force out of respect for his late father. The captain hates his guts and his hard-charging colleague Tina thinks he is a loser, but Jessica, the hot barkeep, values him as a regular customer. After responding to a report of teenagers engaging in some sort ritual in the woods, Garou wakes up in bed with a pentagram carved into his chest. He also just cannot shave his persistent stubble anymore.

Yes, he is a werewolf, but he exercises a fair degree of control. He actually starts busting the meth gang that needed busting. Of course, he still swills whiskey and binges on donuts. He ought to be more concerned about the forces that caused his metamorphosis, but anticipating the long-term is not his forte.

How can you dislike a town that is home to the Liquor Donuts store and holds an annual “Drink & Shoot?” It all sounds very over the top, but Wolfcop is actually more of a movie-movie than the collection of gags it might look like. This sounds ridiculous, but Garou the Wolfcop has a fairly satisfying character development arc and it nicely brings a lot of the town’s history full circle.

Most importantly for werewolf fans raised on Rick Baker’s American Werewolf in London, Emerson Ziffle’s Wolfcop makeup is terrific. His transformations are satisfyingly gross, but the full wolf still has all kinds of personality to latch onto. It is not hard to see a franchise developing around him.

A game lead, Leo Fafard absolutely feasts on Garou’s degeneracy and revels in the Wolfcop’s fierceness. Clearly, he was also a good sport enduring Z’s make-up. Sarah Lind vamps it up quite entertainingly as Jessica, while Amy Matysio brings unexpected verve and attitude to the straight-laced Tina. Considering all the madness going on, the whole ensemble plays it rather impressively straight, scrupulously refraining from winking at the camera.

Never fear, there is still plenty of outrageous gore, plus the sex scene Universal never gave Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfcop is a tough titular concept to live up to, but Dean pulls it off. Good, gruesome, goofy fun, Wolfcop is likely to take on considerable legs following its screening at this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:02pm.

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The Search For Weng Weng trailer from Monster Pictures on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. It might be hard to imagine Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos rolling out the red carpet for a two foot-nine inch martial arts film star, but it makes sense when you consider how much money Weng Weng’s films made. In the early 1980s he was the Philippines’ top cinematic export—and there really wasn’t a number two behind him. Cult film connoisseur Andrew Leavold set out to discover the unvarnished truth about the ironic icon, while grappling with the obvious issues of exploitation as best he could in The Search for Weng Weng, which screens during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The man born Ernesto de la Cruz will always be best known as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only. As seen in Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed, it has become a word of mouth favorite amongst midnight movie patrons. While investigating Weng Weng’s whereabouts, Leavold confirmed a number of earlier featured appearances by his subject, including a film starring future president Joseph Estrada.

Many of the Philippines’ established film scholars and critics are uncomfortable talking about Weng Weng, because they consider his films the cinematic equivalent of a carnival sideshow. However, Leavold found some people who were happy to talk about the Guinness record holding actor, such as his former co-stars and director, as well as fans Imelda Marcos and her daughter, Governor Imee Marcos.

Of course, Search is all about weird cinema, but Leavold’s considerable time spent with Imelda reveals much about the current state of Filipino society and politics. Clearly, she still considers herself the nation’s First Lady-in-spirit, but you cannot call her delusional because there seem to be an awful lot of people who agree with her. It is a heavy thing to say, but Leavold’s footage of her might just be stranger than the Weng Weng movies that brought him to the Philippines in the first place. Yet, nobody can say she is not a gracious hostess.

On the other hand, there is one person conspicuously missing from Search: Cora Caballes, who produced Weng Weng’s films with her late husband. It is his relationship with the Caballeses that most directly raises questions of exploitation, including issues of fair compensation, or lack thereof.

From "The Search for Weng Weng."

Through interviews with old school movie business veterans, Leavold conveys a vivid sense of the Philippines heyday as an unregulated haven for low movie production. He also achieves closure in his quest to determine whatever became of Weng Weng, but his fate holds few real surprises. It will sound like a bit of cliché, but the journey is what is important in Search, rather than the ultimate destination.

Along the way, Leavold tantalizes viewers with truly bizarre film clips, while treating his subject with scrupulous sensitivity. It is a tricky balance to maintain, but he pulls it off. The result is a big, entertaining valentine to B- movies that opens a strangely insightful window into the contemporary Philippines. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the ragged glory of offbeat cinema, The Search for Weng Weng screens again on Monday (8/4), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:01pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Evidently, you can still get addicted to the internet, even when it is heavily censored. China has become the first nation to official classify internet addiction as a psychological disorder. To combat the menace of World of Warcraft dependant teenagers, the government has instituted a network of boot camp style clinics to “cure” the anti-social gamers. Gaining unprecedented access to the Daxing Boot Camp outside of Beijing, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia document their patients’ response to treatment in Web Junkie, which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

They are mostly boys, aged thirteen to eighteen or so. From what viewers see, each and every one of them are gamers, suggesting the government is censoring the wrong websites, if they are really concerned about the social development of younger generations. Since most patient/inmates are either tricked into entering Daxing or in some cases drugged, the initial adjustment is often a rough process. However, once resigned to their situation, they typically try to say and do what they think the staff wants to hear.

Despite the admittedly excessive hours the patients had spent gaming (several uninterrupted days straight in many cases), none of the featured teens ever expresses any love or passion for their games. Yet, when a recent arrival stages a successful escape, they all head directly for an internet café.

Indeed, most of the kids in treatment seem rather dead inside. Frankly, they might benefit from access to Ai Weiwei’s blog and information on the real Dalai Lama. Clearly, they do not relate to either the Party ideology represented by the camp director or the go-go capitalism practiced by their parents, but they have nothing to fill that void accept first-person shooters.

From "Web Junkie."

Shlam and Medalia capture some very real drama, but their strictly observational approach apparently precluded them from asking any tough questions of the staff. It would be especially interesting to know how many of their charges are the sons of Party members, compared to those who come from religious families. The Chinese Communist Party’s legacy of “re-education” also distractingly hangs over the film, like an unacknowledged ghost.

Web Junkie is an eye-opening look at Chinese spiritual malaise, but it never really attempts to determine if the internet addiction diagnoses are genuine and whether the Daxing regimen is really necessary. Frankly, the evidence Shlam and Medalia collect looks rather ambiguous from a layperson’s standpoint. However, there is clearly a profound generational gap at play. Recommended for those who closely watch Chinese sociological developments, Web Junkie opens this Wednesday (8/6) at New York’s Film Forum. We also wish the best for the Israeli crew and their families as they bravely confront yet another round of craven terrorist attacks from Hamas.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:00pm.

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CELLULOID DREAMS Teaser from Jonathan Dillon on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. Christopher Nolan and his colleagues saved film production, at least as long as their films stay popular. Much to the relief of Rochester, New York (home of the last surviving Kodak film factory), the practice of threading film stock will not completely disappear from everyday life. It is an act that takes on significant meaning in Jonathan Dillon’s short film Celluloid Dreams, which screens for three Academy-qualifying days this week in Los Angeles.

For decades, Robert Thompson has lived alone with his memories and regrets. He was once an avid A-V hobbyist happily married to his wife Deanna, but their wedded bliss was short lived. One day, he impulsively fixes his long broken projector, allowing him to visit their early good times together, as well as the events leading up to tragedy. As Thompson watches the flickering black-and-white home movies, he seems to be physically transported back into the past.

Celluloid immediately brings to mind films like Somewhere in Time and Peggy Sue Got Married, but it maintains a sense of ambiguity regarding its nature, whether it is an excursion into magical realism-time travel or a simple memory play. Either way, it is an effective calling card for Dillon, who nicely manages the two separate timelines taking place simultaneously within the same location.

From "Celluloid Dreams."

Although the dialogue is masked by a highly sentimental soundtrack, Greg Lucey’s powerful performance as the contemporary Thompson is still eloquent without words. Cinematographer Hanuman Brown-Eagle’s black-and-white sequences look spot and perfect, while his color work has an appropriately nostalgic sheen.

Indeed, Celluloid Dreams is a great looking film and its romantic portrayal of moving pictures ought to appeal to the Academy’s sensibilities. Recommended for short film fans, it screens this Tuesday through Thursday (8/5-8/7) at the Laemmle NoHo 7.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 9:59pm.

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TIME LAPSE – Official Trailer from TIME LAPSE on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. It is too bad the late, great James Garner never got to take this Polaroid camera out for a spin. It has been specially modified. The big bulky mainframe spits out a picture of whatever is in its field of vision, twenty-four hours into the future. Unfortunately, its inventor no longer has a future, which allows his underachieving neighbors to put it to dubious employment in Bradley King’s Time Lapse, which screens during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Finn fancies himself a painter, but he is really the super of a suburban condo complex. He is the guy who has to check up on the eccentric Mr. Bezzeredes when the retiree’s papers start piling up. His girlfriend Callie is a writer who works as a waitress and their housemate Jasper is basically a degenerate gambler.

It turns out the former scientist was compulsively snapping photos through their front window before he met with death through some mysterious form of misadventure. From Bezzeredes’ journal and the evidence of the photos, the trio quickly deduces the nature of his breakthrough and concludes he was burned (literally) because he tried to pull a fast one on time. Therefore they resolve they must always conform to whatever future comes spitting out of the machine. Of course, it always seems to provide Jasper the daily winners at the racetrack. It also shows Finn the paintings he had been struggling to produce.

We do not need a crystal ball to predict Jasper’s bookie will get suspicious when he keeps picking race after race. However, that is just the start of the complications for the trio. For one thing, they essentially lose all free will once they commit to conforming to the nightly 8:00 photo. It becomes a compelling dramatic constraint King and co-writer B.P. Cooper wriggle in and out of quite cleverly.

In fact, Time Lapse represents a continuation of the renaissance for low budget, high concept indie science fiction, successfully following the example of James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence, Hugh Sullivan’s Infinite Man (a fellow Fantasia selection), and Darren Paul Fisher’s Frequencies. Like those films, Time Lapse is not about special effects. Instead, they start with a fantastical Macguffin and trace its effects on realistic, everyday people. Arguably, Time Lapse is the most character-driven of the lot, presenting the dark side of a Three’s Company-like situation.

From "Time Lapse."

Danielle Panabaker is terrific as Callie, pulling off some nifty pivots that really make the film. George Finn also relishes Jasper’s increasingly erratic behavior, chewing scenery like a genre pro. Matt O’Leary sort of draws the short straw as the painfully reserved Finn (the painter character), but he holds up his end, keeping the action moving forward.

One of the cool things about Time Lapse is it is the sort of science fiction film you could adapt as a stage production without it suffering from a lack of SFX mumbo jumbo. Tightly executed by King, it is a worthy addition to the growing time travel canon. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, Time Lapse screens again tomorrow (8/2) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 1st, 2014 at 6:20pm.

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